The Feminist Fairytale about Butch/Femme

Does butch/femme reinforce traditional gender roles? Is it sexist? Misogynistic? Does being a femme mean that you’re a nurturing “little wife” who “stands by her butch?” A sex kitten who is required to perform an idealized fantasy of feminine perfection? Do butches and other transmasculine people get to “wear the pants” (both literally and metaphorically)–defending and protecting “their” femmes– while femmes have less power? Is it really possible to be a feminist butch or a feminist femme–not just in theory, but in practice?

Sometimes it seems like these questions just won’t go away. This post is my very personal–and political–response. My feminism is about freedom of gender expression. I insist upon being respected as a femme but I refuse to be confined to someone else’s definition of what that means. I’m smart, confident, and successful. I love being pretty and sexy but I’m not an ornament or arm candy. Being femme does not mean that I will abide by the traditional self-sacrificing requirements of femininity–the idea that women must reliquish their freedom and autonomy, dreams and desires, to find fulfillment. I like to please my partner, but I will not subordinate myself to make her happy. You don’t like my amazing new outfit? Oh well, that’s too bad because I love it and feel great in it!

For me, femme doesn’t mean that I’m locked into some naturalized gender role, as I think all too often happens (particularly for women) in heterosexual relationships. But I’ll admit, that’s not always easy. There have been times when I felt like I was slipping into a “wifey” role, and I had to work to get that fantasy image of femininity out of my head. (There’s a huge difference between *wanting* to do domestic stuff and *having* to do it.) I imagine that some butch/femme couples do organize their lives in ways that echo traditional gender roles, but that hasn’t been my experience.

There is nothing inherently anti-feminist or sexist about butch/femme identities or desires. What I think is confusing about femme in particular and butch/femme in general is that it can look a lot like naturalized gender identity/roles at first glance. For example, you’ll never see me change the oil in the car or install new faucets–my partner (who ID’s as butch) does that stuff. I clean the bathroom and do most of the cooking. I take out the trash sometimes, and if I break a nail, I’m pissed. (Actually I’m always pissed if I break a nail!) My partner is usually not comfortable in the kitchen but she can be counted on to make a great tortilla soup. We both value and respect each other’s work. There have been times when I’ve been the breadwinner, other times when she’s supported me financially, and times when we’ve both contributed to our household income. We both have equal power in the relationship when it comes to making decisions, which we make together. She came home with flowers for me today, just because.

The contradictions in masculinity and femininity are a part of us and our relationship, just like they are for most other couples. But when others imply that our relationship is somehow more sexist than theirs, I think they’re projecting their own anxieties about gender onto us.

The notion that butch/femme is sexist is a feminist fairytale we need to stop telling.

13 Responses

  1. I often times think that people are projecting their own biases and unexplored and taken for granted world views–such as the idea that femininity is inherently less than masculinity. That a masculine person and a feminine one cannot possibly work out an egalitarian relationship. People often call butch/femme “roles”, yet I’ve never heard anyone state what these “roles” are. Roles go beyond gender presentation and are about what actions people perform on a day to day basis. When people talk about “roles” it seems very skewed towards the (for some reason) 1950s middles class white ideal. Why is that? Why the 1950s? Why middle class ideals? Why the Caucasian Suzy Homemaker? There are other realities. There always have been. It also tells me that these people have not read a history book, and no not the ones in grade school. The history of butch/femme, the history of folks who aren’t white or middle class and how they navigated “roles” historically that flavors their relationships today.

    I think you’re right about the assumptions re “roles.” I refer to “traditional gender roles,” but of course that really begs the question: for whom are they “traditional?” As you point out, it’s worth thinking about how the “stay-at-home-mom” has been a particularly potent white, middle-class ideal in the US. As always, thx for your comment! -SF

  2. Thanks for checking in- school is great, but intense and super busy. 5 graduate psych. classes is A LOT of work! It’s not leaving me much time for keeping up with blogs, though I”m going to read your newest post just as soon as I finish a bit more work…it will be my reward.

  3. yeah!
    i’d like to ad that there’s nothing inherently anti-feminist or sexist about those “naturalized gender identity/roles” either. sure, sexist is always a possibility, and, sure, it’s a common one, but just because someone is in a “traditional” male/female relationship doesn’t mean they are anti-feminist, sexist, ignorant, or what have you. i think that idea has to be dropped if we’re going to get people to drop the idea that butch/femme is sexist (etc.). although butch/femme isn’t always a reproduction of male/female 1) it is often viewed that way, so it still has to be addressed, and 2) so what if it is?

    whatilike – spot on that the disdain for these sort of roles is based in a devaluing of femininity. that is an argument i don’t think i’ve heard before (or, not so well articulated at least). as for “traditional,” i think it is ridiculous that such a speck of history has been claimed as “tradition,” as “the way it’s always been (for everyone).” (it’s also an example of how well the conservative cultural movement has created the language we use, and so laid the whole groundwork for discussions of culture to skew to that side)

    i love the phrase “a feminist fairytale we need to stop telling.”

    This is a fascinating comment, lady b. I’ll definitely think more about this… xo SF

  4. “I like to please my partner, but I will not subordinate myself to make her happy. You don’t like my amazing new outfit? Oh well, that’s too bad because I love it and feel great in it!”

    Well said!

    Thanks, glad you liked it 😉 -SF

  5. i like your line “when they imply our relationship is more sexist than theirs…” sexism, limiting someone’s options based on sex & gender, devaluing femininity, these things are pervasive in our society and there’s no way not to find them cropping up in most of us and most of our relationships, in my opinion. rejecting femme/butch is not a magic recipe to avoid sexism.

    thanks for your very thoughtful response on my blog re: judith butler. i plan to e-mail soon.

  6. Thanks for your comment on my post.

    Someone once mused to me that one of the things that’s so powerful about femmes is the way in which a queer femme subverts the function of the male gaze and objectification. So much of the symbolism, images, and icons that are representative of femininity are perceived as existing for the pleasure of male gazes and desires. In a heterosexist (and often, simply, heterosexual) context, those peep-toe red stillettos are not about how YOU feel in them, but how that dude sitting across the bar feels when he looks at your calves in them. And I think that is part of the hidden power of femme. Because when you (or I, on my femme days/nights) walk into a room fierce and femme, that power differential is subverted and rejected by our refusal to perform our femininity FOR the male gaze.

    It’s like, “oh? You like this? Well, too bad hun, this isn’t for you. So fuck off.”

    Which, of course, is not to say that there aren’t powerful, fierce femmes how are also straight, but I think there’s something particularly strong about a queer femininity – on a personal and political level.

    I think that a lot of the posturing and hyperbole about butch/femme reinscribing gender norms is ACTUALLY about people who aren’t comfortable with how butch/femme problematizes gender presentations and heterosexual gender norms.

    Also, have you read Butch is a Noun? I haven’t read it yet, but it was recently recommended to me, and based on what I’ve read of your blog, you might be interested in it.

    Thanks for this great comment, Jo! Your point about the male gaze is really valuable. In all fairness, though, couldn’t the butch/dyke gaze work in similar ways? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about femme “trapped in the mirror.” I’d love to have your thoughts. Stay tuned! -SF PS No I haven’t read Butch is a Noun. With all due respect to the author, I must admit the title hasn’t drawn me to it. But I’m sure you’re right that I should check it out.

  7. Very provacative and interesting ideas! I’ll return the compliment, that you recently gave me; I love your blog.

    Fierce femme forever!


  8. […] of sexist heterosexual relationship roles.  So I was excited to read Sublime Femme’s post The Feminist Fairytale about Butch/Femme.  Of course, I wasn’t disappointed.  It’s absolutely fantastic.  I tried to excerpt […]

  9. “People often call butch/femme “roles”, yet I’ve never heard anyone state what these “roles” are. Roles go beyond gender presentation and are about what actions people perform on a day to day basis.”

    Cha-ching! Right, that’s what ‘roles’ are. So could we just stop right there for a second and dwell for a moment on “gender presentation…”

    Before even getting to the politics of roles, I have to strongly object to any understanding of butch-femme identities that narrowly defines them as roles or “role-playing” to begin with.

    If there’s any agreement that identities of gender exist on a continuum (there is that, right?), then there are going to be people at the extremes whose “presentation” may be uncomfortable for the masses in the middle, and I’m speaking of “presentation” as the outward, behavioral manifestation of an internal experience of Self–to varying degrees of authenticity— accompanied (perhaps) by a corresponding (perhaps) physicality that CAME ON THE DNA.

    Any Adrienne Rich-esque theorizing or philosophizing about this issue that defines gender roles entirely as social constructs strikes me as intellectually dishonest by virtue of a) locating the discussion solely in the “nurture” side of the nature/nurture dualism, and b) selectively ignoring the extremes that validate the norm.

    How can anyone anymore argue that all this is socialized and culturally constructed??? For instance, anyone who’s watched a female from the masculinized end of the continuum grow from a little tomboy to a fully expressed, out butch woman has got to at least wonder about the validity of that thinking. Yeah, we start being socialized from the word ‘go,’ but we’re not all equally limited or suppressed, so how might such thinkers account for the “boyish” elements of the internal authentic gender identity of butches, even as children? And just to drive it home, what about those at the extremes with a phenotype we define as masculinized? Did socialization produce a more dense muscularity, or hirsutism, or broader shoulders, narrower hips?? I just don’t get how we continue to ignore these realities and insist on discussing butch/femme as a social/political/sexual construct. There’s something more fundamentally NATURAL underlying all that, and it gets tangled up and mediated by culture, to be sure, but jeezus, there’s a friggin elephant in the living room! And it seems to me that its very existence ought to be the basis for any discussion of gender and “roles,” because some of this shit pre-exists ALLL the social influences.

    It’s easiest to make this case using butch women, because they are not normative, but I’d assert there are correspondingly authentic femme identities/experiences at the other end of the continuum, though they are certainly buried under way more social camouflage. And I’ve been out of school for a long time (Mills, ’94) so I’m sure the discourse has expanded, but I still don’t see this reflected anywhere. It’s friggin’ mind-blowing, and it completely negates and ignores the reality that there ARE genetically butch women.

    God, I’d love to see that term get into the narrative. One of these days…. But if we keep on acting like everything about our gender identities is a social construct informed by greater or lesser degrees of compliance with or subversion of dominant paradigms (both lesbian and het), we are complicit in our own erasure.

    Just sayin’. And now I’ll be happy to discuss who’s supposed to do the dishes.

    I think a lot of work by trans and intersex activists and theorists speaks to these concerns. It seems to me that what many of these thinkers are arguing is not that there is a “gay gene,” for example, but rather that biology and culture are always both in play. Make sense? -Sf

  10. ae –
    I enjoyed what you had to say there, and I am sure that I, like you, have been out of the loop on this part of the discussion for too many years. I read Kennedy and Davis, then Leslie Feinberg and it struck me that on a political level those women “warriors” paved the way for a lot of the political change so that young butches don’t have to be on the receiving end of gross societal abuse (I say gross because I am sure it still goes on to different degrees). I took a lot of what those struggles yielded for granted; which is to say that society took it easier on tomboys het or not, because butches were willing to stand up for their political/social/sexual role. Roles can and will continue to be defined and redefined as long as the discussion continues; they are not staid static things. (but I do think a butch in a full suit would still make me melt). However, as computers and science speed up the discovery of what makes up the fabric of who we are I think the line between male genetics and female genetics and the way they present will cease to be a line and become more of a multifaceted continuum.

  11. I have only very recently began to examine the butch/femme dynamic, and why I might be drawn toward being a femme. It’s complicated and it’s strange to me, having always dismissed those roles/labels as inherently sexist.

    Struggling through my acceptance of myself as a lesbian has also meant struggling through my acceptance of myself as feminine. That probably sounds really strange. That I was more comfortable trying to be more “butch” when I was trying to be more straight, and now that I am settling into my new sexual identity, I am shocked to find myself finding more comfort in allowing myself to be more feminine.

    I went out with a butch, and wow. I really liked it. It was like… this is what it’s supposed to feel like. At one point, on our first date, I watched her hooking jumper cables up to her truck as I sat in the passenger side (we had sat talking in the car far longer than we meant to and inadvertantly ran the battery down, how romantic is that? :), and thought, “that is so hot.”

    I’m rambling. I found your blog while I was lurching around the internet trying to make sense of this stuff. I like your blog. That’s all!

    Welcome, Andi! Not one single thing you wrote sounds “really strange” to me. I love the story about your date. It actually reminds me of how I felt about a certain special someone the first time I got into her car. Hmm, maybe I should do a post on this…. I’d love to hear more about how your ideas/feelings develop around these issues, so don’t be a stranger! -Sf

  12. I wanted to leave a comment so you know I was here and read the sum of your post and quite enjoyed it. What I’m left with is an all encompassing appreciation for the manner in which you view and express your individual femininity, especially within the dynamics of your romantic relationship. There is respect to be had in understanding stereotypes, breaking free of them, plus acknowleding when we feel ourselves falling prey to unhealthy patterns that make up negative stereotypes. I enjoyed the post and comments. Thank you for sharing this with me.

    Thank *you.* Glad you stopped by! -SF

  13. interesting. thanks for giving food for thought.

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